Although likely to be marketed as yet another blood-and-guts horror pic, "Borderland" can more accurately be described as a brutally suspenseful crime drama with interludes of graphic mayhem.

Although likely to be marketed as yet another blood-and-guts horror pic, “Borderland” can more accurately be described as a brutally suspenseful crime drama with interludes of graphic mayhem. Ironically, this grimly efficient indie may be too discreet — and worse, insufficiently blood-splattered — to please the target aud for such fare. But appreciative word of mouth, coupled with a few favorable reviews here and there, may help DVD biz. Recently showcased at SXSW, “Borderland” is tentatively set for a fall theatrical release by Lionsgate.

Opening scenes appear to portend a standard-issue splatter movie. Vet Mexico City cop Ulises (Damian Alcazar) is forced to watch as two minions of a dreaded drug kingpin remove a hand and both eyes from the cop’s bound partner. Ulises is allowed to live, but only so he can send a message to other law enforcement officials: Back off.

A year later, three recent Texas college grads — thoughtful Ed (Brian Presley), blustering Henry (Jake Muxworthy) and innocent Phil (Rider Strong) — are partying hearty on a Galveston beach. They soon set out for a Mexican border town, where they assume they’ll have even more fun — and the audience, recalling dozens of similar setups in dozens of other pics, assumes they’ll wind up very seriously, and messily, dead.

Sure enough, bad things do start to happen shortly after the gringo amigos begin their frolic south of the border. While Ed and Henry spend time with Mexican lovelies Valeria (Martha Higareda) and Lupe (Francesca Guillen), Phil is abducted by the same thugs responsible for mutilating Ulises’ partner.

The local cops are conspicuously uncooperative; indeed, Ed and Henry quickly find that nobody in town wants to talk much about what might have happened to Phil, or who may be responsible. Nobody, that is, except Ulises.

More than most genre pics of this kind, “Borderland” has fair right to claim it’s “based on true events.” In the late 1980s, there actually was a drug-smuggling and ritual-murdering cult operating out of a ranch near Matamoros, Mexico, and members really did call undue attention to themselves by killing some luckless young Americanos. (A grisly irony: According to some published reports, the cultists drew inspiration from “The Believers,” John Schlesinger’s 1986 suspenser about upscale human sacrificers.)

Using those facts as a starting point, writer-director Zev Berman and co-scripter Eric Poppen have devised a scenario in which a smooth-talking sadist named Santillan (Beto Cuevas) serves as a combination drug lord and high priest for various hot babes and cold killers. Occasionally, he performs a ritualistic sacrifice to ensure the continued good fortune of his underlings — and he figures the most potent form of black magic is fueled by the agonized screams of dying gringos.

Much as David Cronenberg primed his aud to expect the worst throughout “Scanners” by blowing up a head during the opening scene, Berman cunningly keeps his aud on edge by opening with full-bore gore. As the pic proceeds, however, he relies heavily on more traditional methods to sustain tension and amp up anxiety, only occasionally resorting to in-your-face carnage before a genuinely exciting house-under-siege climax that owes more to “Straw Dogs” than any splatter pic.

The performances — including Sean Astin’s nasty cast-against-type turn as a gringo employed by the drug ring — are everything they need to be for the pic to work on a visceral pulp level. Better still, Berman lets Presley and Higareda bring shadings of character to their stereotypical roles, particularly when they discover their own capacity for violence.

Scott Kevan’s desaturated-color lensing complements the overall mood of mounting dread.

Borderland

Production

A Lionsgate release and presentation, in association with Randall Emmett/George Furla Films and Tao Prods., of a Tonic Films and Freedom Films production. Produced by Lauren Moews, Emmett, Furla, Elisa Salinas. Executive producers, M. Dal Walton III, Vance J. Owen, Susan Jackson, Deborah Davis, Jeff Rice, Steve Whitney, Keith Previte. Directed by Zev Berman. Screenplay, Berman, Eric Poppen.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Scott Kevan; editor, Eric Strand; music, Andres Levin; music supervisor, Janice Ginsberg; production designer, Tim Galvin; set decorator, Pachilu Moreno; sound, Gabriel Coll Barberis; assistant director, Ricardo Del Rio; casting, Matthew Lessall, Claudia Becker. Reviewed on DVD, Houston, April 13, 2007. (In SXSW Film Festival.) Running time: 104 MIN.

With

Ed - Brian Presley Valeria - Martha Higareda Henry - Jake Muxworthy Phil - Rider Strong Ulises - Damian Alcazar Randall - Sean Astin Gustavo - Marco Bascuzzi Luis - Roberto Sosa Mario - Humberto Busto Lupe - Francesca Guillen Santillan - Beto Cuevas
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